Icons of Photography: Herb Ritts

Herb Ritts was born on August 13, 1952, in Santa Monica. His father was a successful furniture manufacturer who specialised in that sexualised symbol of mid-20th century Hollywood, rattan-ware. Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii movie made it popular – and profitable.

The Ritts family split their time between a 27-room mansion in Brentwood and another family home on the beach at Catalina. They lived next door to Steve McQueen – who was, according to Ritts, ‘like a second father’. Born an insider, he grew up to be the court photographer of glorious, modern celebrity. ‘I never was afraid of celebrity. I was never intimidated.’

A typical, slightly nerdy rich kid, he started slow and unfocussed. His father gave him a Kodak camera when he was ten but he had no photographic training, formal or informal. ‘Many people who excel are self-taught,’ he said at the time of his 1999 retrospective at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. 

He took a degree in economics – at that most arty and liberal of universities, Bard College in upstate New York. He enjoyed it ‘because I had a good business sense’ – as his career showed. He told his parents he was gay. He studied art history. He worked for the family, selling prop furniture to movie productions.

So how did he get into the photography game? Well, the story he always told is one of chance. So it’s probably not entirely true. But it’s interesting anyway. He was with his pal Richard Gere, then an actor more in hope than actuality. Their car broke down. Or blew a tyre. It was an early 1960s Buick Le Sabre. The kind of car that does break down – you learn to put up with that on account of its extreme gorgeousness. While waiting for the car to be fixed, Ritts took some shots of Gere – arms over head, sweaty, cigarette to lips, a homo-eroticist’s dream. ‘I realized instinctively, even then, you have to go for that moment you’re in.’

When American Gigolo made a star of Gere, Ritts’ dreamboat black-and-white of the actor was taken up as its iconic image – because the photographer sent it to Gere’s publicist. Ritts always knew the game – and where to find its top table. Almost overnight, he was a professional photographer. Soon, he was taken up and nurtured by that great editorial patronne Franca Sozzani – then at Lei magazine and later editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue. Nor did it hurt that American Gigolo also launched the international career of Giorgio Armani.

As the 1980s unrolled before him, Ritts found himself in capturing and formulating the new celebrity of the age – a world that borrowed from and leaned on Warhol’s blank-eyed insights about the power and meaning of fame, only without the pop artist’s modernist ironies. Ritts shot them all. Madonna, the Dalai Lama and Stephen Hawking, of course. But Ronald Reagan, Cindy Crawford and Christopher Reeve, too. More than just any other photographer, he created modern celebrity. 

Richard Gere: ‘His purpose was always to make you look good. He had an extremely elegant aesthetic. Some photographers are working so hard to be elegant that they pummel you with it, but to Herb it came effortlessly. Some photographers embalm their subjects, but he enlivened them.’

He used a glorious, Angeleno monochrome, so carefully lit and printed that sometimes your heart tells you that your eyes are lying and that it’s really in colour. Steven Meisel hymned Ritts’ work: ‘The openness, the airiness, the cleanliness of Los Angeles . . . the feeling of openness, that feeling of freedom, and that feeling of light.’

There’s a kind of wholesomeness in there, too – none of the creepiness of, say, Bruce Weber. There’s an almost archaic positiveness in Ritts pictures. A world before the fall. As if there’d never been a Hitler. As if there’d never been such a thing as AIDS. As if Ritts had never tested HIV positive. 

He created a poetics of the glories of the surface. ‘His purpose was always to make you look good,’ said Gere. Exciting, seductive, irresistible – ‘like gods’, it was said. It’s a vision of a world in which there are only movie stars – even when, as in Ritts’s later charity-driven work, they are actually mud-hut poor Africans. (He sent those Africans copies of the glossy hardcover book they appeared in, too. Patronising and self-promoting, yes. Touchingly childish and generous — that, also. Ritts was never afraid to smash right through — with entrancing self-confidence — the walls of his own contradictions.)

His images drew on surrealism and Rodchenko’s brave new compositional sense. He became a master of the startling image – a Man Ray for the modern Vanity Fair world. ‘I like to abstract what’s in front of me,’ he said. A model from behind – bare back, blonde hair twirling like the blades of a fan. Michelle Pfeiffer as a man. Cindy Crawford as George Washington or with kd lang on an old-fashioned barber’s chair. Jack Nicholson through a magnifying glass – giving him a kind of elephantiasis of chin and grin. 

Like other homosexual photographers, his best portraits were of straight men. His women are gorgeous without ever being sexy. How could it be otherwise? Female sexuality was a language he never learned. Still, that also meant he could photograph a post-brain-op Elizabeth Taylor in sumptuous profile, as a queen of us all.

He became one of the supreme commercial photographers of the 1990s. He charged Pirelli £150,000 for his fortnight’s work on the tyre manufacturer’s 1994 calendar. He had his own lab. He moved into the moving image, directing scores of ads, working with the famous and the beautiful for, amongst others, Revlon, Vidal Sassoon and Victoria’s Secret. He made a couple of really significant pop videos, for Janet Jackson’s Love Will Never Do (Without You) and Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game (featuring Helena Christensen). He shot ad campaigns that shaped the way the late 20th century looked – his work for Gap, for example. 

He became and remains popular way beyond the worlds of photography and glossy magazines. A mid-1990s show in Boston attracted more than a quarter million visitors. There is a montage of his work on YouTube. Below it is a naively acute comment by MoesTube1: ‘He made everyone look beautiful but they still looked like themselves if that makes any sense.’ 

He died on December 26, 2002, of pneumonia.

© Peter Silverton 2021

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